Reviews

Parallel lines

Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha and Vidya Krishnamurthi Penguin Random House ₹299  

The most enduring myth among apologists of the British Raj is that colonialism did deliver some so-called benefits: the railways, the telegraph, modern institutions. But chief among them, the central argument in favour of colonialism in any debate, has often been the extensive network of tracks that we have now come to call the Indian Railways. Without the British, there would be no Indian Railways. Or so, the argument goes.

The absurdity of that argument has been debunked enough times, but yet it has survived for a 100 years like a resolute zombie. Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry by Bibek Debroy and team is the latest in a long line of attempts to demystify the early history of a train network that became the largest railway system in the world by 1900. So, why was it built and who benefitted?

Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry

    It is no coincidence that railway construction picked up significantly immediately after the 1857 war of independence; or that the railway network, at least initially, primarily connected cantonments and army outposts; or that its biggest early proponent was Viceroy Dalhousie whose policy of annexation and expansion led to the 1857 conflict.

    In the early decades when railway building was largely a private effort, British investors who put in money were guaranteed a return of 5% by the Government of India. The result was a profligate spending spree that drained taxpayer money out of India. Goods were by and large imported. In fact, for a while, freight rates were kept artificially high in order to ship coal all the way from England. The cumulative effect was that the world’s largest railway network did very little to stimulate the country’s economy.

    Besides, though the focus was on passenger traffic, any benefit that Indians reaped was almost incidental. They were often confined to tightly packed third and fourth class compartments. If India ever gained from the railways, it was despite the British, not because of them.

    The colonists never imagined that Gandhi would use it so extensively. Or that a set of humble tracks would stitch a nation together; would bring distant cultures closer; or unify a geography which was merely a haphazard collection of princely states.


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